Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Syllabi as Intellectual Property?

Yesterday I was talking to a colleague who was lamenting the practice of potential employers who require sample syllabi. The syllabus, particularly a good syllabus, is the product of considerable work and intellectual labor, and as such belongs to the creator. I'm sympathetic to his point: job listings do ask for a lot upfront, given the high probably of a given application ending up in a veritable slush pile. And I know that I spend a lot of time on my syllabi.

However, as regular readers will know, each semester I share my syllabi with any interested readers out in the Internet ether and think it would be better if more scholars did the same. Some reasons:

The intellectual labor of syllabus writing has no direct renumeration: Much like our research, syllabi are loss leaders for the salaried positions we seek or hold. Of course, our feelings about this set up may vary wildly according to our particular material conditions - employment status, pay, position in the academic hierarchy.

The intellectual labor relies disproportionately on others' labor: How many of us can say we've created a syllabus entirely from scratch? We rely on existing scholarship to frame the way we approach our material. We use textbooks and edited volumes which are already structured pedagogically. We borrow, either consciously or more broadly, from syllabi from other scholars or our graduate TA experience.

Syllabi reflect only one portion of the labor of teaching: The scaffolding is important, but it won't erect the building. Moreover, two instructors will produce radically different courses from the same syllabus.

Syllabi are individual: At least the best syllabi are ones personalized to the expertise and interests of the scholar. Someone might well "steal" my syllabus, but might not save himself or herself labor by doing so, given that my choices are in part idiosyncratic.

Syllabi are part of scholars' maintenance of disciplinary knowledge: The above reasons suggest why I am not bothered by sharing syllabi. Their role in disciplinarity is a more active reason to share them. The way we teach and in particular the way we conceptually organize the raw material of our fields perpetuates and shifts in aggregate the way the discipline understands its object of study. From my perspective, if someone borrows from my syllabus, I'm glad that my contribution to the field extends beyond my own classroom.

Sharing opens the syllabus up to collective wisdom: In practice, we are too busy to go around reading everyone's syllabus. But to the extent that syllabi have a broader readership, the possibility exists for a dialogue to open up about it. Even the job interview can be an occasion to get valuable feedback. This has honestly happened to me.

I definitely see the other side here. And in crucial ways, the syllabus sharing issue is related to the issue of intellectual property and blogging. All of us who write weblogs with substantive academic content are aware that doing so consumes time and means the loss of control of what happens to our ideas. That said, the advantages - individual and collective - outweigh the drawbacks.

5 comments:

michael z newman said...

This is a interesting post, Chris. But I frankly don't see this guy's point. Where is the risk in sharing a syllabus? If someone else uses your ideas, how are you harmed? Like you say, it's not like a syllabus is something we sell on the open market. If someone else teaches my course, I am not being deprived of anything. Actually I would be gratified. And I really wish I could see more syllabi online when I'm trying to create my own.

I actually think everyone should have to publish their syllabi online in an easily accessible format. Then everyone would have to be accountable for how they teach in a way that they are not now. It would expose those who have not been keeping up with their field or who let students get away without doing any work, and this would obviously improve education. And it would make it easier for students to choose which courses to take. A syllabus is like a menu, and some people like to be able to read a menu online before going to a restaurant to know what to expect. Of course, CMS prevents open access to this kind of stuff even when it is online, which is just one of the many reasons CMS sucks, but that's a topic for another day.

Chris Cagle said...

Let me say it's possible I'm misrepresenting his complaint, so I don't want to get in the position of vicariously defending it, especially since we're both in favor of wider sharing. Have you encountered scholars who are hesitant to share syllabi?

michael z newman said...

I don't think I have encountered anyone who was reluctant about sharing a syllabus.

Anonymous said...

I think it in fact can become complicated. If the professor has a TA, for example, and the TA is also doing substantial work on things in the syllabus, or the syllabus was designed in part as also a help to the TA. Someone who is competing with the TA for a position has heard about what the TA is interested in then more quickly generates work on the same ideas and the same films.. only it looks original, because the other person is across the country. So all of it really depends on context, I think. Having had professors steal my ideas without giving me credit while I was a grad student, I can relate to the concern.

Anonymous said...

A syllabus is just a way of conceptualizing and organizing a body of material that we think is important to discuss a particular topic. It is absurd to consider this our intellectual property. We use sources from other authors' bibliographies all the time--citations also define particular fields--yet we don't consider this intellectual property. We should all circulate our syllabi widely and focus on our writings as our intellectual property as this is where our contribution is. Those who obsess about the intellectual property of their syllabi do so because they have not written enough.